We have all been given very clear instructions from experts, health professionals and the Government on the best way for both individuals and the country to make it through the coronavirus pandemic, but what’s less clear is how our relationships are meant to survive this unprecedented time of stress and quarantine.
Already there have been reports of a spike in divorce applications in the Chinese city of Xi'an after couples were forced to quarantine together in close quarters, and divorce lawyers in the US and UK are forecasting a similar phenomenon later this year.
Domestic abuse experts in Australia have warned that isolation will trigger an increase in violent incidents, while Women's Aid in Ireland has reported that its helpline is receiving calls from women who have had to sneak out to their cars to call and get support during this crisis.
This is not a honeymoon. It is normal to feel anxious, stressed and fatigued, which are, incidentally, some of the most common reasons for a decrease in libido
But even healthy relationships are feeling the impact of coronavirus. As people are struggling to cope with the pandemic’s impact on their health, jobs, finances and social connections, couples who live together are also finding themselves in an entirely new dynamic where they suddenly have to spend 24 hours a day together, and relationships everywhere are feeling the strain.
Here are some tips on how to manage co-habiting, and tackling this time of stress and uncertainty, together.
Accept this will be challenging
Perhaps unsurprisingly, social media is still full of celebrities posting photographs from their beautiful homes; influencers doing face masks and making social isolation look like a luxurious spa retreat; and those impossibly perfect parents whose Von Trapp children are putting on adorable Tony Award-worthy plays, just waiting to go viral online.
Meanwhile, your children won’t stop screaming, your personal hygiene has taken a nosedive, and you are struggling to find non-coronavirus topics to talk about with your partner. As for sex, forget about it. You begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with your relationship, if you can’t survive simply being in your home together. After all, isn’t this the type of quality time couples dream of?
No, it’s not. This is not a honeymoon. It is completely normal to feel anxious, stressed and fatigued right now, which are, incidentally, some of the most common reasons for a sudden decrease in libido. If you’re confused as to why you and your partner aren’t taking this time together as an opportunity to have sex on every surface in your home, don’t assume there’s anything wrong with your relationship. It’s simple biology at play. Prolonged periods of stress and anxiety can take their toll on our health and mental wellbeing, producing adrenaline and prolactin as our bodies stay in “fight or flight” mode. Prolactin is known as “the celibacy hormone” as it dampens sex drive.
It is also completely normal not to be completely enamoured with your live-in romantic partner right now. Many people need privacy and solitude to function properly. Many people’s mental health and happiness is dependent on their routine that has been upended; interests and hobbies they’re no longer able to pursue; the social lives that have now been hugely curtailed. You are not a failure or a bad partner if you do not enjoy being confined in a small space with one person. You’re just human.
Talk about how you’re feeling
It’s important to check in with your partner about how each other is feeling, and how you both want to manage any anxiety and stress. This time may reveal that you and your partner have different coping mechanisms, and not acknowledging and accounting for this may result in conflict.
For example, some people may react to their anxiety by wanting to consume endless amounts of media about coronavirus, whereas their partner may find this alarmist and anxiety-inducing, preferring to keep some distance from all of the headlines. These different coping styles may leave people feeling distant from or unsupported by their partner.
When it comes to media consumption, many psychologists and experts recommend being very mindful about your media sources in order to protect your mental health.
Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on public perception of risk and human judgment and decision-making, told the American Psychological Association that constantly monitoring social media and unchecked sources can needlessly amplify anxiety and should be avoided.
It's important to acknowledge if one partner wants increased attention during this stressful time, or space to themselves
“I think the most useful thing that people can do at this stage is to find some trusted sources of information like the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization, or some of our major media, and just stick to them for information,” says Dr Fischhoff. “They’re professionals. They do the best job they can of gathering and communicating the information. That will also protect you from the irresponsible, the rumour mongers, the people who are using this as an opportunity to sell things or to inflame racial hatred or ethnic hatred.”
Check in with each other about how you’re feeling, and how you can respect each other’s responses to stress. This may involve having a partner call a friend to discuss news instead of doing so with their partner, or assigning 15 minutes for a headline swap but no longer.
But Fischhoff also recommends extending empathy and patience to partners or family members who may have pre-existing anxieties, mental health issues or external concerns that may be understandably exacerbated by these extraordinary circumstances.
“Be supportive of people who are under greater stress,” he urges. “Those will be people who have anxiety that’s been triggered by this or people who feel like they’ve been discriminated or are worried about loved ones.”
Giving your day a structure will massively help your stress levels and mental health. This is particularly important if you have children
It’s also important to acknowledge if one partner wants increased attention during this stressful time, or space to themselves. Even though this is simply about how individuals emotionally and mentally recharge, if unaddressed this can feel like a personal rejection, so talk about how each other is feeling and your needs for space.
During these conversations, stick to “I” statements, instead of “you” statements. “You’re constantly attached to me like a leech, sucking the life out of me,” is far less helpful than “I love you, and I need some time to myself to emotionally and mentally recharge.”
Set a routine and expectations
It can be extremely difficult to stick to a routine when you’re existing within one small space, but giving your day a structure will massively help your stress levels and mental health. This is particularly important if you have children, as they thrive on routine and knowing what is going to happen each day.
The Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for parents on how best to alleviate stress and anxiety in their children in these uncertain times, saying: "Children and teens react, in part, to what they see from the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with Covid-19 calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support for their children. Parents can be more reassuring to others around them, especially children, if they are better prepared."
Their recommendations include explaining the facts of the coronavirus outbreak in an age-appropriate way, but limiting their access to news and social media coverage so they don’t misunderstand anything or become overwhelmed or frightened.
The CDC also recommends setting regular routines for the family, and being a role model for your children by taking care of yourself. “Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and eat well. Connect with your friends and family members.”
It can be very easy for one partner to always end up doing more housework, and now is the time to start afresh under these new circumstances
To set an effective schedule and routine, sit down as a family and decide what needs to be tackled, when, and how you can all manage it together. By listing everything that absolutely needs to get done every day, you can then approach these tasks as a team, instead of feeling like you are separate individuals fighting to have your needs met, with the other people in the household acting as obstacles.
Lee Miller, a marriage and family therapist, says it's wise to create new routines to accommodate for this intense period of isolation, particularly for couples who are both suddenly working from home. Specifically, Miller says to assign roles for each day: who cooks, who cleans, who looks after the children at what point during the day, and so on.
"This is not even close to a typical situation, which means there are a number of different roles both partners are going to have to play while they're working through the current reality," she told CNN. "It's critically important to schedule time to sit down and talk about what your expectations are of each other during this time."
Talk about your and your partner’s individual needs, starting with work schedules. If both partners are working from home, can you take shifts watching the kids while the other works, or organise activities so that the children are occupied for a few hours so you both can focus?
Set very clear expectations around housework and home admin, too. It can be very easy for one partner to always end up doing more housework, and now is the time to start afresh under these new circumstances. What chores need to be done, and when? If your children are old enough, give them chores to complete every day – cleaning their rooms, setting the table, or washing the dishes after dinner.
Set manageable expectations around your children’s activities, and release yourself from the burden of becoming the world’s best home-school teacher. If you can get through some educational and creative activities with your kids each day, you are working miracles.
And if you and your partner find that housework or small jobs are falling through the cracks, try to let the small things go.
Writer and editor Molly Tolsky had a novel suggestion for how partners suddenly forced to work from home together could manage conflicts: create an imaginary co-worker on which to blame disagreements. "Pro-tip for couples suddenly working from home together," Tolsky tweeted. "Get yourselves an imaginary co-worker to blame things on. In our apartment, Cheryl keeps leaving her dirty water cups all over the place and we really don't know what to do about her."
Designate different spaces
Even if you live in a small space, it can be of huge psychological benefit to designate different areas of the house as work zones, relaxation zones, or to carve out a separate space from your partner.
If possible, designate different rooms for work, or even separate corners of one room. Artificial boundaries can still be effective, and things like headphones and earplugs will help create the idea of an individual space. If you need to retreat to the bathroom or sit in the car to write or take phone calls, do it. If you have a garden, take advantage of any good weather and do some work outside.
Children will also benefit from having designated activity spaces that will stop them from feeling too static or confined. Having a quiet reading nook, an activities table or a play corner will help them process shifts in activity, and will emphasise the day’s structure.
"We need boundaries around this ambiguous, endless stretch of time that's all around us," says Dr Orna Guralnik, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, "so anything that can create differentiation, boundaries, or difference is really good for us right now."
Carve out some non-working time to spend separately, even if that just means spending an hour in different corners of a room
While managing work routines may require dividing up your time and space during the day, also make sure you’re scheduling daily time together as a family, such as always having dinner together. Pick family activities or projects, such as playing a favourite game, trying the latest silly viral dance routine, going for a walk together, or watching a movie.
For children and adults alike, try to keep your bed screen-free to help sleep patterns and the anxiety that comes with reading headlines.
Carve out time for intimacy – and time apart
Having different spaces in your home will also help you to carve out some time apart from your partner, which can be hugely beneficial for your relationship. Most couples do not spend 24 hours a day together, and the sudden lack of physical and mental space can be draining.
Carve out some non-working time to spend separately, even if that just means spending an hour in different corners of a room. Watch an episode of that show you love but they hate, listen to a podcast, read a book, or go for a walk by yourself. Not only will this give you some time to recharge, but doing different activities and consuming different media also means you will have something new to share with each other, as you would normally talk about your individual days together.
But also create time for intimacy. This doesn't just mean sex though, by all means, if you're both in the mood, enjoy yourselves. Now would be a great time to swap some fantasies, try something new, or order some sex toys online. Irish company Sex Siopa is still taking online orders if you want to support local business while also supporting your sex life. But emotional intimacy is also important. Establish a routine where you have half an hour together in the morning or before you go to sleep where you veto any talk of coronavirus, and focus on each other.
The New York Times has a list of 36 Questions That Lead To Love online, that range from "What do you value most in a friendship?" to "If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?" to "Tell your partner what you like about them."
Answering these questions in bed at night is not only a way to forget about the stresses of the day before you sleep, but it’s also a gorgeous way to connect with your partner and learn something new about them – two things that will help stave off any sense of the emotional stasis or overfamiliarity that can affect attraction, affection and sex drive.
Perhaps, most importantly, try to be patient, considerate and kind to each other during this time. It’s easy to take out our stress and frustrations on the people closest to us, and easier still when you’re cramped together in close quarters for long periods of time. By taking the time and steps to invest in your emotional health and wellbeing, both as individuals and a couple, you can weather this storm together.
- Maintain a regular routine every day: Get dressed, eat breakfast, schedule work hours, time to yourself and family time together, and keep on a regular sleep schedule.
- Designate different areas of your living space into work and relaxation areas to create some sense of boundaries and movement.
- Communicate openly about your and your partner's individual emotional needs, coping mechanisms, and how to support each other.
- Send your children's teachers a thank you card when school is back in session, now that you know what they put up with every day.
- Be patient and considerate with each other – we're all trying our best.
- Check the news and social media constantly for updates. Limit yourself to one or two daily updates from reputable sources.
- Feel guilty for needing time to yourself.
- Worry about the small stuff. If it won't matter in a week, let it go.
- Forget to make time to be romantic and emotionally intimate, even if your sex drives aren't high right now.
- Try to learn the violin right now. Just don't.
How is your relationship surviving the Covid-19 crisis? Whether you are dating only a few weeks or months, or have been married 50 years, we would like to hear from readers about the stresses, strains and unexpected joys of life under lockdown with or without your partner. You can contribute using the online form above, anonymously if you wish (please indicate this in your submission). A selection of responses may be published on irishtimes.com next week. Thank you.